When a boy’s scientist mother is kidnapped, he tries to rescue her with the help of her greatest invention in this middle-grade novel.
Although Jason Pascal, 12, might be expected to know something about Recode Global, where his mother, Dr. Shannon Pascal, is a top scientist, the site is highly defended, demanding strict confidentiality agreements from its employees. So, along with everyone else on the Buttonwood Middle School field trip, Jason will be going through the secretive company’s doors for the first time. After Shannon’s presentation on how humans and artificial intelligence can be partners, she shows Jason her lab and Proto, the wristwatch-sized prototype AI she’s developing, whose “main governing principle is to work with humanity, not against it.” This is reassuring—because Proto hitches a ride out of the lab with Jason and becomes very useful indeed when it becomes evident that Shannon has been kidnapped. Proto helps Jason and his friend Maya Mateo to investigate, a search that leads them to a nefarious toy factory where a supervillain has big plans. With a little help from his friends, can Jason save his mother and the future of AI? Johnson (Code 7, 2017) offers a well-calculated balance of suspense and humor for middle school readers, and Jason and Maya make a good pair. They bond first over a mutual interest in bicycles and recording their tricks and then through their shared courage. Maya’s “DronePro” becomes something of a counterpart to Proto. Proto is often drolly amusing, as when he distracts barking dogs by beaming images of “tiny sweaters, booties, and blingy collars,” explaining that “my research indicates Chihuahuas have incredible fashion sense.” Action sequences are exciting and dramatic. The novel also provides food for thought in considering how AI could help or hurt humanity. Although the villains are over the top, they do give voice to some of the forces that might want to use AI for selfish, grandiose reasons.
A well-written, fast-paced, and thoughtful adventure.